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NYC Schools: Aiming For Illiteracy


NYC Schools: Aiming For Illiteracy

April 4, 2003
EducationPre K-12

MAYOR Bloomberg has just handed the progressive-education movement near-total power and influence in Gotham. Discredited methods for the teaching of reading and writing will soon be enforced in every single classroom in 1,000 city schools.

This is a disaster in the making, not least because children in the targeted schools are mainly poor and minority - the very population historically most damaged by such methods.

It also flouts the promise of Bloomberg's speech on Martin Luther King Day, in which he vowed that instruction in the early grades would now "employ strategies proven to work," including "a daily focus on phonics" - an all but explicit rejection of progressivism.

Yet within a week, the city Department of Education announced that the Month by Month Phonics reading program would now be mandatory in 1,000 city schools, with only 200 "high-performing" schools allowed to opt out. Not only has this program never been "proven to work" - it isn't even a phonics program.

Deputy Chancellor Diana Lam claims the department chose the program because it had worked wonders at schools such as PS 172 in Brooklyn. "In the last three years the percentage of students at PS 172 meeting or exceeding the English Language Arts standards has risen from 34 to 68 percent," she enthused.

Not quite. PS 172's 4th-grade scores did climb from 34 percent to 66 percent from 1999 to 2002 - but 5th-grade scores only went from 65 percent to 74 percent while 3rd-grade scores crept from 59 percent to 64 percent.

Nor did PS 172 use Month by Month Phonics the entire time: As reporter Andrew Wolf revealed, the school only introduced the program in 2001. Before then, it used a genuine phonics program, which likely brought much of the gains.

Officials chose Month by Month Phonics over the heated objections of seven leading reading researchers, who blasted the curriculum as "woefully inadequate" and lacking "the ingredients of a systematic phonics program." The memo should have set off alarms: The National Reading Panel, created by the U.S. Congress, has concluded that a phonics-based approach is essential for teaching reading to beginners.

And a strong, systematic phonics program is already in use in 63 city schools: "Success for All" has been cited for its effectiveness in more than a dozen controlled studies. (By contrast, Month by Month Phonics has not undergone a single independent study.)

In 1999, Success for All became the preferred reading program for the Chancellor's District, which comprises the worst-performing schools in the city. A year ago, the old Board of Education was boasting of rising reading scores in many Chancellor's District schools, and crediting Success for All with a good part of the advance.

Yet Bloomberg's new education team chose to junk it without so much as a hearing. Principals whose schools saw reading scores improve under the program have reportedly been told to just shut up if they have any complaints about the curriculum shift.

How did the mayor's promise for a a back-to-basics reading program morph into its very opposite? It's not hard to guess: The mayor is a successful businessman; the chancellor, a former federal prosecutor. They have moved decisively on the Management-101 part of the school system's overhaul. But they plainly feel less confident when it comes to classroom instruction. Looking for guidance from experts, they made the mistake of deferring to the system's old guard - a progressive-ed hotbed.

A telling decision was Klein's hiring of Diana Lam as deputy chancellor for instruction. She arrived from the Providence, R.I. superintendent's job with a reputation for quickly raising test scores and moving on. In fact, the academic performance of the Providence schools, uniformly dismal when Lam got there, was scarcely better when she left. In particular, her "balanced-literacy" reading program (whole language plus a dollop of phonics) had little positive effect. Yet she seems determined to carry on the experiment here, and her progressive-ed ideology is already evident in her and Klein's picks for the 10new regional superintendents who will actually run the city's 1,200 schoolson a day-to-day basis.

When he took on the job of running the city's schools. Mayor Bloomberg said voters should judge him a failure if there were no improvement. He must decide soon whether he really wants to stake his reputation on an untested reading program led by a group of educators who have never managed to provide minority children with the basic skills they need to succeed in life.